Friday - June 09, 2006 - Life didn't
start out easy for Vikas Khanna. As a child he had several leg
operations and wore braces until he was 13. The day they came
off, he says, 'I ran, ran and ran!'
Perhaps it was the
inability to run and play that drew Khanna into his family's
kitchen in Amritsar, India. From an early age, he helped his
grandmother cook and it was from her that he learned many
secrets of Indian cuisine and spices.
Vikas Khanna, center, chats with guests
earlier this year at a cooking class and dinner that was
a fundraiser for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
Khanna, a native of India, is now a New York-based chef.
By the age of 10, Khanna was creating his own recipes. At
14, he catered a wedding for 1,000 with the help of two other
cooks. At 17, he opened a catering business called Lawrence
In 1990, Khanna was accepted at the WelcomGroup Graduate
School of Hotel Administration in Manipal, in south India. On
his way to the interview, he had an accident that left him
partially blind in one eye. Undeterred, he completed the
four-year program. After graduation, he worked at various
hotel chains in India before returning to his hometown in
northern India and his catering business, which flourished, he
In 2000, eager to gain wider experience, Khanna came to New
York. His first job was as a dishwasher on the Upper West
Side. By 2002, he was executive chef at an upscale Tribeca
restaurant, Salaam Bombay. He is now the executive chef at
Tandoor Palace and acts as consultant to various other new
Not one to waste time, Khanna also runs a catering business
and teaches at his cooking school, Sanskrit Culinary Arts. In
addition, he is an accomplished artist/sculptor and has
self-published five books about Indian cuisine, including 'The
Spice Story of India' and 'The Cuisine of Gandhi,' which
features his own artwork.
Right now, Khanna is working on a proposal for yet another
cookbook with publicist/agent Lisa Ekus, who lives in
Hatfield. Earlier this year, the two hosted a cooking class
and dinner at Ekus' home as a fund-raiser for the Food Bank of
The guests gathered first in the dining room around a long
table covered with ingredients and a copy of each recipe.
After a brief introduction by Khanna, everyone moved to the
kitchen to begin what turned out to be a four-hour, hands-on
A good-looking, unassuming young man with a charismatic
smile, Khanna himself was everywhere - advising, reassuring.
When a blender bottom fell off, spilling emerald-green mint
chutney, he calmly took over, saved what he could and then
added more ingredients. 'No matter - we can fix it' was his
Khanna, who describes his cooking style as a fusion between
traditional Indian and diverse American flavors, mixes and
tastes with his hands, stressing that it is 'important to get
your fingers in the food, to feel the texture.' Everyone got
to handle the bread doughs, and, as one guest observed, the
puri (puff bread) felt like Play-Doh while the paratha (flat
bread) was more like a pizza dough.
Khanna also shared cooking tips, like his trick for getting
seeds out of a pomegranate. 'Cut into it just a little, then
break it apart gently. Turn each half upside down over a bowl
and tap it hard all over.' As he demonstrated, using a heavy
knife handle, the seeds popped out easily.
By dinner time, the table was again loaded: grilled shrimp
and mango, spicy chickpea curry, baked fish stuffed with
spices, coconut chicken curry, mushroom and rice pulao,
roasted cauliflower and peas, ginger-flavored mustard greens.
For dessert, there was saffron-flavored cr￤me brulee, Assam
spiced tea and a dish Khanna put together at the last minute,
a subtle blend of sugared rose petals, yogurt and cardamom
that would be great as a topping on ice cream.
The fundraiser for the Food Bank was just one of Khanna's
charitable efforts. Now that he is in his mid-30s, helping
others has become an all-consuming passion, he says. In 2003,
he became the founding member of New York Chefs Cooking for
Life, a nonprofit that raises money for relief efforts
worldwide by organizing food-tasting events featuring
four-star New York chefs. A cookbook, 'New York Chefs Cooking
For Life,' with recipes from the group's 2005 tsunami benefit
(which raised $50,000) and Khanna's photography, is due out
soon. Khanna is currently busy coordinating the first Cooking
for Life event outside the United States - a July fundraiser
in Egypt to raise money to build ramps and rest rooms for
disabled people visiting the pyramids. He is working on a tour
package for Americans that will include a free ticket to the
Khanna also conducts food-tasting classes for people with
visual disabilities to help them better understand the sense
of taste and aromas, to 'move them beyond the microwave oven.'
He takes no salary, he says; all the money raised through the
classes goes toward cures for blindness in children in South
Asia. A companion cookbook, 'Vision of Palate,' printed in
Braille, will be published sometime this year.
Khanna posts information about his fundraising efforts on
his Web site, www.vkhanna.com, which also includes recipes and
links to online sources for Indian spices.
The first two recipes below are from the Food Bank
fundraiser and will also appear in Khanna's proposed new
This versatile sauce can be used as an appetizer dip, to
top vegetables like cauliflower, or to marinate meats.
1 cup cleaned, washed and drained coriander
1/4 cup cleaned, washed and drained mint leaves
3 green chilis, split open and the seeds removed
Juice of half a lemon
1/4 cup plain yogurt
20 to 25 peanuts
Salt to taste (if you use salted peanuts, you may not need
Remove all thick stems from the coriander and mint (small
stems are fine to leave on). Coarsely chop the herbs and
chilis. Be sure to wash your hands afterward as the chili
juice will sting your eyes.
Put the herbs and chilis in a blender with the rest of the
ingredients; blend until smooth. Add a little water if
necessary. Taste and season.
Remove from the blender and store in a clean, dry airtight
jar in the refrigerator.
Grilled Shrimp and Mango
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon dried, crushed red pepper
18 uncooked colossal shrimp or 36 jumbo shrimp (about 2
pounds), peeled, deveined, tails left on
2 red bell peppers, each cut into 12 pieces
2 firm but ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, each cut into 12
6 12-inch bamboo skewers (for colossal shrimp) or 12 for
Soak the skewers in water for 30 minutes and drain.
Mix the first four ingredients in a large bowl. Add the
shrimp, bell peppers and mangoes. Toss to coat.
Alternate bell pepper, mango and 3 colossal shrimp on each
of 6 skewers, or alternate bell pepper, mango and 3 jumbo
shrimp on each of 12 skewers. These can be prepared up to four
hours ahead. Cover and chill.
Preheat the grill to medium. Grill the skewered shrimp
until cooked through, about 4 minutes per side for the
colossal shrimp and 3 minutes per side for the jumbos. Serve
hot with rice.
This recipe is from Khanna's Web site.
4 skinless salmon fillets (1-1/2 to 2 pounds total), each
about 1-inch thick, cut into cubes
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons nonfat yogurt
1 tablespoon garam masala
Salt to taste
4 fresh edible orchids, for garnish
Season the fish with salt and the lemon juice. Place in an
Mix the oil, cumin seeds, flour, garlic, ginger, yogurt,
garam masala and salt. Pour this mixture over the fish, then
cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the fish, uncovered,
until it flakes easily with a fork, about 25 minutes. Serve
with tamarind chutney, and garnished with the fresh